If anyone had genuinely believed Maria Sharapova would retire in frustration at the shoulder injury that has kept her out of the game for the past nine months, they needed only to talk to the Russian ahead of her comeback next week to realise those fears were unfounded.
The former world No1 will play in her first singles tournament on the Sony *Ericsson WTA tour for nine months at the Warsaw Open having finally recovered from the injury that ruled her out of the past two grand slams, sent her ranking into freefall Ė she is currently No65 in the world Ė and left her bitterly disappointed after several setbacks delayed her return.
Suggestions that one of the most marketable players in the women's game would quit, however, were wide of the mark. A few weeks before Sharapova announced her intention to play in *Warsaw, the 22-year-old was at the Sony Ericsson Championships in Miami Ė not playing, but promoting; putting in her contracted hours on behalf of the tour sponsor and looking ahead determinedly to getting back on court after such a long absence. "Competing is a big passion of mine and playing is what I love to do. I've been there before, I've done it, this is just another challenge in my career," she said. "I'm young and I thrive on challenges Ė it's when I perform best."
Sharapova did, however, admit *struggling with the monotonous *training required to rebuild the muscle which had withered after *surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff in her right shoulder. "These last six or seven months have been really tough, waking up every day to go into a little room and spend two and a half hours lifting tiny weights. There was a TV in there too, so I watched the girls playing tournaments all over the world while I was stuck inside doing therapy. When I first got injured I set a lot of timetables for myself because as an athlete you need a goal for when you're going to start competing again. But over and over again mine were shattered. For the first few months I tried to do rehab but that didn't work out and then I thought I might be back for the Australian Open but have to have surgery. At that point I said, 'that's it, I'm not going to set any more deadlines."
Many would not have been surprised if the woman who was the world's highest earning female athlete last year had put down her racket and embraced her life's other passion, fashion which helped occupy her time during her lay-off. "I could be in the fashion business, I love being creative," Sharapova added, before rapidly qualifying. "But I'm no sketcher; I'm no Salvador Dali. I know that what I'm best at is *playing tennis and nothing makes me happier than going within that four-walled fence and competing. That's when everything goes out of my mind and all I think about is how to play better. Whenever that ends, that's when I say, hey, I've had a wonderful career, but now I have other priorities. Sitting here today, though, *tennis is my No1 thing."
Sharapova's time off has clearly given her time to reflect. "Yes it's been frustrating to be away for so long but it's also given me so much perspective. There's definitely less stress," she said, "so I've saved a few grey hairs and I haven't had any jetlag for the last six months, which is amazing. It can be difficult when we're on tour, *people don't see the grind that we put in for weeks on end or the sacrifices that you have to make as a professional athlete."
Sharapova knows about those sacrifices, having left her mother in Russia at the age of seven to move to the United States, where her father washed dishes to pay for her tennis lessons. "Unfortunately, I haven't been home for a few years" she said, "but I have so many memories from growing up; I think it's really important to know where you came from. And when I do go back it's the little things, like going to a restaurant and ordering in your first language, or calling down to the lobby in the hotel and having them answer in Russian, which are so great.
"I love the food, too Ė I'm a big food freak. So when I go to Russia it's non-stop eating for me. I definitely prefer it to American food because the ingredients are so fresh and you can eat so much of it and feel like you're getting full, but not like you're getting fat! I love all these amazing dishes that my grandmother cooked, like varenikes Ė dumplings that have different fillings Ė and sour cream which is our version of ketchup. I put it on top of everything Ė mashed potatoes, omelettes, it's crazy."
Memories are one thing, but in *Warsaw Sharapova will begin a new chapter in her tennis career even if she is *unsurprisingly unwilling to look too far ahead: "If I look back to when I was 12 years old, to think that in five years I'd win Wimbledon and would be *sitting here 10 years later with three grand slams and having been No1 in the world Ö it's crazy, you know. So who knows what the next 10 years will bring? All I know is that I love going on court and competing and I'm really looking forward to getting back out there."